Stage managing can be a tough job, but most of us stage managers love it (most of the time). Finding stage management jobs, however, can be tough. It’s draining, challenging, and can be very disheartening.
Every time I closed a show (and I've closed many Broadway shows), I’d get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. A worrying knot would develop filled with fear, doubt, and dread. It was like a long slow shadow surrounding me.
Does this sound familiar? I don’t think it’s too dramatic. In fact, in some ways it is a traumatic experience. My head would spin with questions like: When would I work again? How long would my unemployment benefits last? Would I have to go out of town? How will I pay the bills? What about earning weeks towards insurance? Could I love my benefits? What if no one hires me again? So many concerns would race through my head.
There are some job postings that can be found online, but most stage managers get their work though a common connection or networking. The work we do is intimate and requires a great fit between the director and stage manager (or the PSM and the assistant stage manager). Being “right” for the job is not about skills and aptitude.
There are so many qualified stage managers. Getting the job usually revolves more around personalities and being a good match. I’ve heard numerous times from Broadway stage managers, “I want to hire someone I like being with for 16 hours a day,” or “I want to hire someone that I can enjoy having dinner with.” In a way, it’s more like a marriage than a job!
When you finally are the right fit and get the job offer, then you enter a whole new challenging phase, contract negotiations. Only a small percentage of theatre stage management gigs have really good minimum AEA salaries (Broadway and First-Class National Tours). Therefore, it is imperative that stage managers negotiate the best salaries they can above some of those lower minimums (They are after all “minimums” right?!).
It’s really hard being your own agent! You desperately want the job, but you also need to ensure the paycheck will work for you and that you feel valued. The employer always seems to have the upper hand. Or at least that’s how I’ve felt. They know I want/need the job and hold all the cards. Minimum sometimes becomes maximum. This is one area where I envy actors and how they have agents to negotiate for them.
But finally, you get the job, do a great job, the show closes and you’re back pounding the pavement again. The process of what happens between jobs is a job in itself, and one that we aren’t trained in. Frankly, the work of getting jobs is one that most of us aren’t excited about, and more likely, makes us anxious. I know I was always on edge and unable to really enjoy the down time until I knew when the next gig started.
What can we do to help ourselves through this process?
Mindset and self-care are certainly important. There is great value in the karmic ideas that putting out good positive energy will bring good positive results. A scarcity mindset is a self-fulfilling prophecy, so cultivating an abundance mindset can be a huge help (granted, this is also a challenging adjustment, I’m still working on it). Self-care before, during, and between gigs is vital in so many ways. A whole session was dedicated to this at the 2022 Broadway Stage Management Symposium.
Our self-care is how we pay attention to and value ourselves (and I’m still working on that too!).
Since we know the importance of contacts and networking in our crazy freelance careers, one of the best actions you can take is to put yourself in the best possible position to make contacts and grow your network. For this I have three important avenues.
1. The Stage Manager’s Association: Be part of this nationwide community, engage is SM GO events,join a committee and stay connected. This is good year-round for job notices, networking, and support. The membership database is a great resource, as are the podcasts and other resources available to members.
2. Attend the Broadway Stage Management Symposium: hear from and engage with Broadway’s stage managers, be “in the room where it happens,” where the energy is all about what we do. Renew your passion and find new inspiration, learn new techniques, strategies, and technologies. Most importantly meet new stage managers and exponentially grow your network. In NYC or Online, there are so many ways to connect and meet new people. Stage manages recommend other stage managers, so this is exactly how you can get in a new circle and not have to always apply to job notices. Instead, you’ll receive emails and phone calls from folks saying so and so recommended you and hope can may be available, etc., etc., etc…. The Symposium is an event you can attend annually, as it’s always new and exciting.
3. Social Media: Maintain your LinkedIn and social media accounts as a professional. Our online presence is becoming more and more important as possible employers, directors, PSMs and more can research you quickly and easily. There are many online tutorials on how best to use LinkedIn. As a freelance stage manager, we’re rarely going to be recruited by a head hunter, but you do want to look online as great as you are in person, someone people want to work with! I don’t think you need a website, but if you have one, keep it updated, neat and clean (just like your resume). And engage is your online groups and communities: SMA, Broadway Symposium Alumni, YSM, regional, etc… We know that you can build a relationship online.
Networking has two sides though. On the positive side, networking values the abilities we have to build strong positive relationships with people. The intimacy in which we work, means we want to be in the room with those we already know and trust. Or with someone who was recommended by someone we know and trust. This circle of trust builds a tight community and perpetuates work among its members.
However, it also creates a close loop, which can become homogenous and lacking in diversity. Our community has recognized this in recent years and there have been many efforts to open up the circle and bring more chairs to the table. Organizations like Broadway & Beyond Access for Stage Managers of Color, which has done amazing work raising exposure for stage managers of color and getting them seen. Also, the Charlie Blackwell Symposium Scholarships have helped bring more stage managers of color to the Symposium. Our community has been actively pushing the circle more open and working against the closed loop circle bringing more diversity into our networks. There is still work to do, but it’s moving in a positive direction.
There are so many challenges we face as freelance stage managers: Being your own human resources department, marketing agency, publicist, and agent is not easy. But every show needs a good stage manager! The training you received in school and/or the experience you’ve had working is invaluable, but it’s the soft skills, the people skills, your contacts and network that make the vital difference in getting the job. It always comes back to the people.
Stage managers are some of the best people I know and we share compassion and empathy for our company and for each other. Stage managers recommend stage managers. So we're all in this thing together, dealing with our anxieties, challenges, and the knot. We continue our connections and community and know we are all in this together!
Knowing all this, the knot in my stomach is still there, but it’s more manageable and I know my community and network is there to support me.